For a second day, confessed murderer Jake Wagner testified against his older brother George Wagner IV about the planning and coverup of the murders of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families in Pike County, Ohio, in April 2016. Jake Wagner detailed how he says he and his father hid the murder weapons in a lake on his grandmother’s property using concrete buckets as anchors for a goose box — which they in turn intended to be a gift for his grandfather.
Jake has already pleaded guilty to his role in the murders of the mother of his daughter, Hanna May Rhoden; her parents Chris Rhoden Sr. and Dana Manley Rhoden; her brothers Frankie Rhoden and Chris Rhoden Jr.; Frankie’s fiancee Hannah Hazel Gilley; and Hanna May’s uncle Kenneth Rhoden.
Jake’s second day of testimony began with Jake answering questions about returning home with his brother and their father, George “Billy” Wagner, on Peterson Road around 4:30 a.m. on Friday, April 22, 2016 after committing the murders. Jake said they pulled the truck they had purchased into the “new barn” and took off their clothes, which included ski masks, black pants and hoodies, gloves, and athletic shoes purchased from Wal-Mart. He said they then removed the truck’s floor mats to burn them. Jake said he went inside the house in his boxers to get “redressed.”
Then, Jake said he returned to the barn and used a portable grinder to cut up the guns that were used in the crime spree. He said he used a torch to melt the remaining pieces, paying special attention to destroy the serial numbers and firing pins of the Glock .40, Walther Colt 1911 .22, and SKS. Jake said he was concerned about destroying the firing pins because markings could be traced forensically.
Jake testified that George then fed the animals on the property.
Jake next indicated that George Wagner IV helped him dig a hole under a post in the “new barn” and buried the guns there in a duffle bag. Jake, when asked about his brother’s physical strength, smiled and described him “in metaphorical terms as strong as a bull ox.”
Jake said his father, Billy, took the truck they had driven that night off the property after he and George Wagner IV “disassembled” the false bed they had built. Jake had testified the false bed was built so the brothers could hide underneath it as Billy Wagner drove to the Rhoden property that night.
After daylight, Jake said he burned items he had placed in an old food trough — including clothing, shell casings he’d collected that night, security modem from Chris Rhoden Sr.’s marijuana grow house, and cell phones belonging to the victims. Jake said he added fuel to the fire to keep it burning and then dumped the ashes in a Rumpke dumpster on his property.
Jake then described driving to a building his mother bought between Rarden and Lucasville with George Wagner IV but said they forgot their chainsaw. He said he received a call from his mother telling him to come home. Once there, he said they watched the news about the homicides and then he received a phone call from a man named Andrew Carson, who asked whether he knew what had happened.
After that, Jake said he called Chelsea Robinson, the mother of Frankie Rhoden’s son, Brentley, to check on Hanna May Rhoden’s newborn, Kylie, and Frankie Rhoden’s 6-month-old son, Ruger. Jake said Robinson told him the babies were at the Adams County Hospital, so he drove there to see whether he could take Kylie to take care of her — not for custody. At the hospital, he said he spoke to Hanna May Rhoden’s aunt, April Manley, who testified about their discussion earlier in the trial.
Jake testified to attending the funerals of the victims with his brother and father. He described his relationship with Chris Rhoden Sr. as “very well . . . like a second father. I hoped he’d be my father-in-law one day.” Jake said Chris Sr. was supportive of Jake even after his relationship with Hanna May Rhoden ended. Jake testified Monday to firing a shot at Chris Rhoden Sr. before Billy Wagner fired additional shots at him.
When asked, Jake said his family decided to murder Kenneth Rhoden, the 8th victim, because his father said “Kenneth was so close to his brother and could be a loose cannon.” Jake said Billy Wagner told him Kenneth might try to kill him thinking that Jake committed the murders.
After the homicides, Jake said he had his family didn’t discuss the murders despite Angela Wagner and Billy Wagner telling them they were there for him if he needed to talk about it.
“I could not bear to think about what I had done without feeling immense guilt,” Jake said. “I tried to erase the memory.”
“No, I got it,” he testified that he told his parents. “I’m bottling it up. Don’t mention it.”
Jake said after his first interview with BCI agents, he became fearful that the agents were listening to their conversations. He said his father first made that suggestion. However, the family did not alter its behavior as a result of that fear.
Jake then testified about his father suggesting they place the remaining parts of the guns used in the murders in concrete buckets. Those buckets would then be placed in a lake on Fredericka Wagner’s “Flying W Farm.” Jake said he and his father placed the guns in the buckets and assembled chains to them while using the concrete as a weight. The plan was to use the buckets as anchors for a goose house that would be a gift to Billy Wagner’s father, Bob Wagner.
Bob Wagner was ill but still drove around the property and “had a natural love for Canada geese.” The house floated on the lake and was placed on the right side of it near the road. Jake said they presented the goose box to Bob Wagner either for his birthday or Father’s Day. Jake said he and his brother designed and built the goose house.
Special Prosecutor Angie Canepa asked Jake whether he requested a paternity test for Hanna May Rhoden’s newborn daughter, Kylie. He said that he had and learned, as Rhoden had told him, that Charlie Gilley was the father. Prior testimony indicated Jake could not be Kylie’s father due to the timing of their breakup.
Further testimony focused on Jake’s recollections about his brother’s relationship with his ex-wife, Tabitha Claytor. Claytor testified earlier in the trial that she fled the house after an argument with George Wagner IV in 2014 and after Angela Wagner told her “I’m going to get my gun.”
Jake confirmed details Claytor provided about riding her bicycle on SR 32 to a truck stop. He said that he urged his brother to call the police before Claytor could to beat her to the punch. Jake said his older brother was reluctant but called the police anyway to report a domestic incident.
Testimony then focused on 2017 and the then-upcoming one-year anniversary of the Rhoden and Gilley murders. Jake said agents visited him and asked to make a copy of the contents of his cell phone. He testified that he refused. Agents said they had approached Jake after seeing Facebook messages that belonged to Hanna May Rhoden that disputed Jake’s claim in 2016 that their relationship was cordial and there weren’t any issues.
Jake said the agents later returned with a warrant for his cell phone as the family was planning a trip to Alaska in May 2017 to look for housing and work. It was during that trip that Jake said his grandmother, Fredericka Wagner, called his father to let them know that BCI agents were searching the Peterson Road property they had recently sold.
“To be honest, I wasn’t nervous,” Jake said of the agents searching the property and possibly finding evidence. Instead, he said, “I was upset.” Jake said he felt BCI agent Ryan Scheiderer, who is the lead agent on the case, was toying with him.
At that time, Jake told the jury the family agreed on alibi for the night of the murders. He said the family would tell agents they watched a particular movie but couldn’t recall which one. Jake said his father told him, “don’t fall for their games” when referring to the agents.
As the Wagners returned to Ohio by traveling through Canada, they were stopped at the border in Montana and questioned by BCI agents. After the Wagners were released following the interrogations, Jake said they took his daughter, Sophia, and his nephew, Bulvine, to a local hospital after Bulvine told them the agents gave them “sleepy Kool-Aid medicine.” But, Jake said, the urine tests at the hospital were negative for any drugs.
Jake said the family assumed their vehicles were bugged so they didn’t discuss anything. He also said it sounded familiar that there was a concern among the family members that Tabitha Claytor had been to the border to see Bulvine. A wiretap played earlier in the trial recorded George Wagner IV saying he would “bring all hell” if he learned his ex-wife had seen their son without his permission.
Jake next answered questions about a press release the Ohio Attorney General’s Office distributed in June 2017 which showed all of the Wagners’ photos and asked for the public’s assistance in providing information about dealings anyone had had with the family regarding the sale of vehicles and firearms.
Jake then answered questions about meeting the woman he married in Alaska: Elizabeth Armer. At first, Jake couldn’t seem to remember her name, smiling and saying “that’s shameful.” He then said her name was Elizabeth Freeman when he met her. Armer testified last week about living with the Wagners for three months in 2018.
Armer and Jake met a church in Alaska and married on March 24, 2018. The next day, they left for “the lower 48.” The entire family planned to settle in Missouri but the loan they tried to obtain for a property there wasn’t approved, the testimony revealed. That left the family with few options, so they moved back to Ohio to live at the home of Angela Wagner’s late father in South Webster.
Jake was asked whether his mother and brother became upset about Sophia referring to his new wife as “mom.” Jake said his mom and brother became upset when they told him he shouldn’t “force” Sophia to call her mom. He also said his mother and brother didn’t express concern about how Sophia calling Armer “mom” would impact Bulvine. That answer differed from what prosecutor Canepa told the jury in opening statements.
Jake said he believed Bulvine looked at Angela Wagner as more of a mother figure than a grandmother.
Jake confirmed he obtained his new wife’s personal information and passwords to websites. The couple also synced their phones. When asked whether he expressed concern to his new wife about her family knowing where they were living, he said he only told her he didn’t want her two brothers, who she said had abused her as a child, knowing where they were living.
Jake then testified to a disturbing allegation Armer made during her testimony last week. Armer said Jake told her he would string her up in a barn and beat her to death with Lucille, a character from the show “The Walking Dead,” and then bulldoze the barn and kill her family if he ever found out she had molested Sophia.
Jake claimed on the witness stand that the comment arose from this context: his mother had told him that Armer had molested Sophia. Jake said he and his mother confronted Armer about the allegation, and Armer denied it. He said he didn’t tell Armer what he would do to her personally, but instead told her if he ever caught anyone in the act of molesting Sophia he would beat that person to death with his hands.
After Armer called a pastor in Alaska and relayed the information, Jake said he also spoke to the pastor and told him what he had said. Jake said the pastor told him that he shouldn’t jump to conclusions and should find out whether or not Sophia was lying. Jake said he prayed for two to three weeks and then spoke to his daughter. He claimed she told him she felt Armer, who the family called Beth Anne, was stealing her daddy from her and that she wanted her to leave.
It was not clear through the testimony whether Sophia, who was four years old at the time, made the abuse allegation or whether the suspicion came directly from Angela Wagner.
Armer was never charged with molestation or any similar crime.
Prosecutors have alleged that the Wagners were obsessed with custody and control of children.
Testimony resumes Wednesday morning. When court adjourned for the day Tuesday, prosecutors were still conducting their direct examination of Jake Wagner.
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